Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Updating Poirot and Marple

by Sandra Parshall

During an interview on Suspense Magazine Radio (listen to it here), interviewer John Raab asked which Agatha Christie sleuth I find more intriguing, Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. Pressed to choose, I said Poirot. But the truth is that I don’t find either of them intriguing.

Christie’s protagonists are flat characters who don’t evolve over the course of the two long, long series they anchor. We know little about the past or private life of either. Many of us have mental images of Poirot and Marple that are influenced more by actors’ portrayals than by Christie’s text.

These days, few authors of mystery series could get away with writing such hollow protagonists. Thriller writers may come close – how much does Lee Child reveal about Jack Reacher? – but mystery authors have an ingrained belief that people read their books more for the characters than the plots. Fans want to “keep up with what’s happening” in a favorite character’s life. They want to watch protagonists “grow and change” over the course of a series. Readers want to know what made characters the people they’ve become. They enjoy the secrets, big and little, that are revealed as a series goes on. They love stories in which problems from the past show up on the doorstep of the present, ready to cause trouble.

Poirot and Marple are more symbols of justice than living, breathing people.

What do we know about Poirot beyond his appearance (“a quaint, dandified little man... hardly more than five feet four inches... his head was exactly the shape of an egg... his moustache was very stiff and military), his fussy mannerisms, and his high regard for his own “little gray cells”? He “had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police," according to the first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that debut novel, he walks with a pronounced limp, but the disability disappears in later installments. He comes from a large family about which we are told virtually nothing. Poirot himself provides false autobiography in a number of books, the deception always in service of his investigation. Christie said that she envisioned the detective as old from the beginning. At various times, she expressed her dislike of her creation, calling Poirot "insufferable" and a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep" whose popularity seemed to mystify her.

Christie apparently concocted Poirot from bits of other fictional detectives of the early 20th century, including Marie Belloc Lowndes' Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans' Monsieur Poirot, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.

Christie gives us bits and pieces of Jane Marple’s background in the books, and the character in the later novels is strikingly different from the snarky village gossip in the first, The Murder at the Vicarage. However, the change was the author’s attempt to make the character more likable for readers, and it wasn’t due to any soul-shaking experiences Miss Marple endures on the page. She has never married, never held a job, has some sort of independent income and also receives help from her nephew (and only living relative), the author Raymond West. She grew up in a Cathedral Close, is well-read, and attended an Italian finishing school. She is always described as old, and she continues to age in the novels.

How would today’s editors react if they encountered Marple and Poirot for the first time in fresh submissions? A few mysteries with “senior” protagonists are being published, so careful research into niche markets might lead to a receptive editor or two. But most editors would want the characters younger, perhaps a lot younger, and intriguing back stories would be a must.

In modern cozies, maybe messy divorces would be enough to add a little color to both characters’ private lives. If the ex-spouses are nearby and keep showing up at inopportune times, all the better. Maybe there’s still a spark in both relationships, enough to disrupt any new romances.

A single/divorced woman who has never worked a day in her life is almost unheard of now, so Jane Marple needs a cute job if the books are cozies and something more substantial if they take a turn toward darker traditional mystery. Maybe her husband divorced her because she’s never gotten over her love for her first fiancĂ©, who died in car crash three days before their scheduled wedding. Jane, of course, was driving, and she dreams about the accident at least every night, always waking with tears pouring down her cheeks. Give her a couple of cats and she’s ready to meet readers.

Poirot needs a good reason for leaving the police force. (But honestly, can you imagine this man as a cop, even in his youth?) Maybe his partner was shot and he feels responsible. Or he was shot, and now he feels like a coward because he's afraid to risk life-threatening injury again and takes refuge in solving what are essentially mental puzzles. Maybe he drinks too much. Don’t all modern detectives drink too much? Ditch the mincing walk, but the mustache might work if it’s bigger, bushier, and left unwaxed. To round him off, Poirot needs a big dog who senses his every mood and always lays a fuzzy chin on Poirot’s knee at the right moment.

What do you think? With a little updating, could Christie’s characters make it as modern sleuths?


jvdsteen said...

Maybe Ms Marple could be a mystery writer... wait, no... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Sandy, I read tons of blogs and this is one of the most perceptive pieces I have ever seen in the blogosphere! I hope you will try yourself to do some updates of these two people!!! Thelma Straw, MWA-NY

Sandra Parshall said...

Well, thank you, Thelma!

JJM said...

Although I read the Poirots and Marples as a youngster, the books faded in my memory as, in the end, flat, stale, and unprofitable precisely because the characters were so two-dimensional. As you say, symbols of justice, not living people.

Were they to be updated, though ... well, I can see Miss Marple as writer of a lonely hearts column for the local paper; or, if the mysteries are cozies and remain English, running the local tea shop fronting on the village square. Since her detection skills are so much founded on gossip and knowledge of human behaviour, either would put her in a good position to continue the same course.

Poirot needs something fussy -- how about police archivist? The Leicestershire Police are currently offering a position as such; from the job description: "Archivists in the Criminal Justice department are responsible for filing and retrieving files, which means it is necessary to work meticulously and with great care." Sounds like that would suit Poirot admirably, doesn't it? And it would give him direct access to all sorts of information.

I disagree with you on the dog, though. A cat, just as fussy as Poirot is. Possibly also "employed" at the police archival facility to keep down the vermin population. And, just to work against stereotype, I'd be tempted to give Miss Marple a St Bernard or Great Dane.
--Mario R.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I too find characters who are capable of growth more interesting. We know plenty about Stephanie Plum, but she never seems to learn from experience or make up her mind about those two guys. On the other hand, any analysis of Poirot and Miss Marple has to take the British class structure into account. Go back to Jane Austen--or Georgette Heyer's Regency romances--and you'll find that in the upper classes, people who work for a living are despised. In the 20th century, women who didn't have a job persisted a lot later in British novels than in American novels (crime, mainstream, or literary, from Patricia Wentworth to Iris Murdoch). I'd like to ask PDD's British readers if a woman with a "private income" would be considered implausible even today, whether or not you personally approve of her.

Marni said...

I vote for the Marple St. Bernard and the Poirot cat! Seriously, adding depth to both of them would be a delight.

Sandra Parshall said...

Unless the woman is royal or otherwise titled, I think it would seem odd these days for her to have no profession, nothng to occupy her. Someone like Miss Marple would surely be employed in some way.

Patrick said...

Honestly, I'm not at all fond of the modern trend of giving everyone a detailed, angst-filled backstory. So I wouldn't do a thing to change Poirot or MM. Yeah, they can be flat characters, but I prefer flat characters to dull characters we're forced to spend 200 extra pages with.

Susanne Alleyn said...

In the era in which Christie was writing (essentially 1930s-50s for Marple), upper-middle-class women like Miss Marple, whether single, married, or widowed, did have a full-time job: volunteer. They were the ones who did the church work, ran the Women's Institute, did the collecting for missions, "visited the poor," all those Victorian duties of the upper classes. They were NEVER idle, just unpaid, because they all had independent investment incomes of some sort, large or small. MM's is definitely on the modest side, but she has enough to live like a proper lady in a small cottage with one, usually very young and not very bright, servant girl, and to do her proper village work with the other village ladies. MM's endless knitting is probably baby clothes or blankets to be given to the poor or to be sold at the church's "sale of work" to raise money for charity. _Noblesse oblige_!

I hated the McEwan version where, in flashback, they gave her a lover who was killed in WWI. There's just no evidence of such a backstory in the books. MM is a Victorian maiden lady, pure and simple, who never married because there was always a shortage of eligible men in her youth, between young men getting killed in wars (more likely the Boer War for MM) or simply that they weren't well off enough to marry. Thousands of such ladies were around in the 30s and some still in the 50s.

OTOH, I like the idea of an updated MM having a dog or cat with a personality. You'd think the real MM would have had a cat. :-)

Now if you want a very Victorian-style spinster in the 1930s who actually has an interesting career, what about the marvelous Miss Climpson in some of Dorothy L. Sayers's books?

JJM said...

"Honestly, I'm not at all fond of the modern trend of giving everyone a detailed, angst-filled backstory," wrote Patrick. Thing is, though, that we needn't have a detailed, angst-filled backstory incorporated into the story at length. What's important is that the writer know it; trust me, that starts showing through in the way the character behaves on the page.

What we're talking about is depth, three-dimensional characters, not cardboard manifestations of Justice. The background is there to be drawn upon, in dribs and drabs, if and when needed.

Real human beings don't tell their entire life's story to everyone around them, and generally reveal only what they need to in order to explain their actions and have them be accepted. I'd like the same for the modern Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, not just surface tics and eccentricities but a sense that there's a human being there, one who has lived, one who has memories, one who behaves and acts in certain ways for a reason, even if the reason is never fully laid out.--Mario

Patg said...

Thanks Susan, most of what you said was in my mind. Frankly, I don't want an updated, younger Marple. Boring to the bone. It is the era she lived through and the way she shewedly handled things that makes Marple perfect as she is on the page.
When I get disgusted with all these angst ridden, whining younger protagonists being force fed to us these days, I sooth my nerves by taking down an older Marple.
I, too, disliked everything about the McEwan interpretation of dear Jane.
Good grief, Do Not give her any animals. Haven't you paid attention? She's a major gardener! Cats or dogs scratching up or doing its business in her garden would have given her palpitations.

And private income is not unusual for her generation. By her time, fathers weren't in a position to handout large sums for doweries, but they could do investments that the woman took as her dowery or lived on as a spinster. Something those modern protagonists should be thinking/worrying about while emptying their coffers on clothes and shoes. Or at least mentioning when they take new jobs or start careers.
Wooo, loved this discussion.

Anonymous said...

I thought the recent Agatha Christie played by Geraldine McEwan was interesting. PBS gave her a back story of a love affair with a married man who was killed in the war.
A lot of viewers were incensed, but it gave the character more depth than usual.